The seven honorees at the Mayor's Awards for Arts and Culture were pre-announced, yet there were still surprises at the celebratory event hosted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Whoopi Goldberg at New York City Center on February 20, 2013.
Unless you're part of the inner circles of philanthropist grand dame Agnes Gund or Department of Cultural Affairs Chair Kate Levin, both of whom had a guiding hand in the awards, it's unlikely you've seen either culture maven behave anything but officious. Instead of speeches, the pair treated the audience of nearly 2,000 to a tongue-in-cheek lip-sync of Beyoncé's "Star Spangled Banner." Why? Who knows, but along with the mayor's and Goldberg's banter, it set the tone for a relaxed evening.
In a ceremony interspersed by real performances, composer Philip Glass, actor Edward Norton, the Ford Foundation, the St. George Theatre, educator Anthony Armstrong and artist Fred Wilson were recognized for their outstanding contributions to New York City's cultural life. The Mayor's Awards for Arts and Culture were created in 1976, when the Department of Cultural Affairs was founded, and given annually until 1994. Mayor Bloomberg revived the awards in 2004 to acknowledge the role the arts play in creating a vibrant and economically healthy city. Among the positive economic indicators Bloomberg pointed out in his remarks is the fact that New York City is the largest funder of arts in the country.
Impresario Harvey Lichtenstein received the city's the highest award for achievement in the arts, the Handel Medallion, which has been awarded since 1954. As president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music for 32 years until 1999, Lichtenstein planted the seeds that led to the cultural flowering of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and the flourishing careers of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Trisha Brown, Andre Gregory, Laurie Anderson and Bill T. Jones, all of whom paid tribute to him during the ceremony.
Another surprise of the evening was the work of honoree Anthony Armstrong, principal of Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School in Bayside, Queens. In a time of cut-backs, this believer in the arts as an educational tool keeps a full-time arts staff that teaches everything from graphic design to choral music. He also partners with Lincoln Center Theater and Flushing Town Hall for extracurricular activities. "Keeping the arts in his school is a matter of priority," he explained during the reception.
The president of the Ford Foundation, Luis A. Ubiñas -- a Bronx native -- accepted its award. The foundation recently funded the renovation of the Public Theater, the new BAM Fisher Building and the collaborative exhibition, "Caribbean: Crossroads of the World," at the Queens Museum of Art, Studio Museum in Harlem and El Museo del Barrio. Addressing the audience's cultural leaders, Ubiñas said the vision of the world of a kid from the projects, such as himself, will be shaped by his access to cultural institutions. "Make sure yours is open to that young man or woman," he implored.
Bronx-born visual artist Fred Wilson said he "was educated by the museums of New York City and owes a great deal to them." He especially thanked the Bronx Council on the Arts for allowing him to run a gallery before his career took off, creating site-specific installations in cultural institutions around the world. He is represented by Pace Gallery in New York City.
The renovation of the Gothic revival St. George Theatre in Staten Island was spearheaded by the late Rosemary Cappozalo, a dance teacher, and her daughters Doreen P. Cugno and Luanne Sorrentino. The historic theater now hosts stars again like Joan Rivers, but as Cugno and Sorrentino explained, it also serves thousands of seniors, school groups and underprivileged children throughout the year.
Composer and performer Philip Glass first appeared at BAM's opera house in 1976 and most recently with the September 2012 restaging of "Einstein on the Beach," Glass' landmark collaboration with Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs. Upon accepting his award, the Baltimore native and Juilliard graduate admitted he had only gradually become a New Yorker, but the "one percent non-New Yorker remaining [in him] is gone after tonight."
Actor Edward Norton is currently at work on "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a Wes Anderson comedy being shot in Berlin, but James Houghton of Signature Theatre accepted the award on Norton's behalf. He described Norton as being "relentless in a good way when it came to being a tireless advocate" for social issues and the environment, but also for the arts as a founding board member of the High Line, and a board member of Signature Theatre.
Among the live performances were those by Laurie Anderson, Anna Bass and Monica Bill Barnes of Monica Bill Barnes & Company, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, Laura Dreyfuss and Ben Hope from the musical "Once," and Steve Reich with Garry Kvistad, executing a percussive composition with intricate hand clapping.
In tribute to Harvey Lichtenstein, Andre Gregory, Bill T. Jones, Elizabeth Streb, Laurie Anderson, Mark Morris and Philip Glass all made remarks. Once at the podium, Lichtenstein, ever the promoter, looked at his Handel Medallion and proceeded to recommend the audience attend the Metropolitan Opera's upcoming production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare" (Julius Caesar).
Perhaps worried that it was impolitic to end the night referring to a tragic political drama in front of the three-term, powerful mayor, Harvey went on to thank Bloomberg for giving his blessing to install Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates" in Central Park. The octogenarian then made his exit walking backwards, blowing kisses to his artist protégés, as they stood on the stage in resolute admiration.